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Beadwork and flowers -- an Oklahoma artist incorporates Prairie Band Potawatomi culture into her art

The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation is the first federal recognized tribal nation in Illinois. An Oklahoma artist has strong connections with this nation. WNIJ’s Yvonne Boose spoke with this creative about how she incorporates the nations heritage into her art.

Amber Dubois-Shepherd is an educator, oil painter, mixed media artist and digital artist.

Dubois-Shepherd has roots that expand across a few Indian nations: Navajo, Sac & Fox and the Prairie Band Potawatomi. She is enrolled as a member of the Navajo nation and affiliated with the other two. There are specific formal & legal requirements to being enrolled as a member -- essentially becoming a voting citizen — of a tribe/nation vs affiliation, a looser association based on ancestry.

Her mother is Navajo, and the Prairie Band Potawatomi comes from her paternal side.

“My dad and my year younger brother are enrolled in the Prairie Band role. And so, we would go up there to Kansas,” she said, "and there's a couple times we attended different feast."

Dubois-Shepherd said she’s been around artists since she was a child. She learned how to weave and do other artistic things, but she said she didn’t become serious about art until high school. Dubois-Shepherd had a teacher there who inspired her to delve into her gifts.

“And he was the first real like mentor of mine that really pushed me to start working in art. And then of course, exploring my native background,” Dubois-Shepherd explained. “So, he knew a lot, interestingly enough, about native art, he was really into Western art.”

She said he also encouraged her to apply for art shows. She won best of show at times and placed second or third at others. She said this inspired her to continue to create.

Dubois-Shepherd said she must balance her native backgrounds when she creates. She points out some of the differences between the art by comparing native dresses.

Amber Dubois-Shepherd's oil painting "Earth, Sky, and the Medicine Keeper."
Amber Dubois-Shepherd's oil painting "Earth, Sky, and the Medicine Keeper."

“With the Potawatomi designs, they do a lot of like floral designs in beadwork that are very beautiful and kind of striking in the way that those are created,” she said. “And there's some geometric kind of designs but they're different from the Navajo textiles that I've seen.”

She said the beadwork is intricate and delicate. Dubois-Shepherd said even the men wear floral and bead designs. She said the bandolier bag is another accessory that tribal men wear. Sometimes the bags are given as gifts for those who did things for the tribe.

“Instead of, like, a written language," she said, "it was like, you could see some bead work or large bandolier bag and go, ‘Oh, wow, you see that guy over there? He did this. ‘You see that sign? Yeah, yeah, I see that.’ That's what that means.”
Potawatomi people are known as “the keepers of the fire.” Dubois-Shepherd said the nation uses fire to communicate with the spirits, give offerings and during prayers.

Tobacco is another important part of this culture. She said it’s considered a sacred plant. Dubois-Shepherd said they have tobacco pouches that have dried grinded tobacco leaves. It is often used as an offering during prayers.

She has many pieces that are inspired by the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. She also designed a cover for the Sierra Club Magazine that is based on her Potawatomi heritage.

“So, there's a woman in it with a with a red collared dress,” she described the cover image. “And then there's these floral patterns and design, very colorful, that kind of wrap around her but based on that woodland ribbon work as well as like beadwork design that I've grown up seeing for Potawatomi people.”

Dubois-Shepherd also uses tribal creation stories and incorporates them into her art. She said she is about to send out a piece to some St. Louis students that incorporates components of the “Flood Story.” In this story, animals were challenged with going all the way down to the bottom of the water to grab the earth. As one version of the story goes, a muskrat accomplished the goal but passed away. The human sprinkled a piece of earth on a turtle shell, and it grew into the land.

“So, I created this piece for the students," she explained, "and it's two male and female figures, they're sitting on a turtle shell. And then there's an eagle coming out of like a flame as well.”
Dubois-Shepherd explained that the land referred to is called “Turtle Island.”

"Which is what we believe that we're on, she said. "And that's what our land is. We're on the back of a turtle shell."

Dubois-Shepherd said she was excited to hear about the land in northern Illinois. At the same time, she had mixed emotions.

“I mean, there's still a part of me that's a little bitter," Dubois-Shepherd said, "about the fact that we have to buy back what was originally our people's land,”

She said she hopes this creates a domino effect for other tribes who are looking to gain back land.

Dubois-Shepherd said there is so much to learn about the Prairie Band Potawatomi heritage. She suggests people do more research on the tribe’s website.



Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.